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Diamond in the rough…or just rough?
By:  Christopher Tersigni 8/20/2015

On Friday, August 14, 2015, Secretary of State JFK (that’s John Forbes Kerry) cracked open the dustbin of history that is Cuba, by raising Old Glory at the US Embassy in Havana. Over fifty years have passed since the embassy has been in use. I wonder if it’s a scene out of Terminator Salvation where the technology is, well, over fifty years old. Dial phones, manual typewriters, 40 lb. Kirby vacuum cleaners; what a sight that must be.

Which brings me directly to my point. I’ve thought of this before, but I decided to dive into the shallow end of the vehicles stranded in Cuba over my entire lifetime, and the thought they may be pristine due to the great weather and lack of real estate to pound a million miles on them. Interesting findings.

Cuba has been in a relative time capsule for the last 55 years, and logic might lend itself to believing that this equates to preservation. Maybe a little.

Automotive sector still a struggle

The economy hasn’t exactly exploded over this period, so many sectors have suffered as a result. Automotive is one of them. Before the 1950’s Cuban Revolution, most vehicles on Cuban roads were from the US. There was an upper class at that time, so no doubt some high-end European vehicles existed as well. Many US vehicles were also ushered right out of Cuba to collectors in other countries. This one is tough to tell; with limited travel for US citizens, reports of what’s on the road in Cuba can be sketchy. I couldn’t speak to how long the pipeline of parts lasted after the US pulled out, but I can tell you once we cut trade with them, it dried up.

Now onto the alleged “pristine” cars that are said to exist. I did some digging, and I have to disagree. Getting a car in Cuba is no easy feat. Until 2014, you needed a permit to buy a new car –assuming you could afford one. With mark-ups averaging about 400% [read: 400 PERCENT!], and your average state worker is yanking down a neck-snapping $20-$25 a month, simple math tells me that sales are not optimal. From 1959 to 2011, you could not sell cars through private channels to one another – unless they were in Cuba before 1959. That’s why families cobbled them together, and passed them to each other. After 2011, the regime loosened that rope, so now Cubans can buy a “previously enjoyed “Russian built GAZ Volga, or some other Eastern Bloc gem from a private individual. Of course, those ’57 Chevy’s and Pontiacs are available as well.

Backyard engineering

I have no doubt, that there are some hidden treasures that have been stashed away. But the chicken wire and Seven Up bottle fixes that are known to be widespread on the island will disappoint the connoisseur who thinks he’s first to make a strike into classic car territory in Cuba. If you find some pictures of classic American cars - and you know what you’re looking at - you can see the backyard engineering that goes into the repairs. They were also utilizing Russian made aftermarket parts for some of the US vehicles as well. I have to give their ingenuity two thumbs up. One thing is universal for car guys: they know how to MacGyver solutions to keep their cars on the road.